"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Monday, September 30, 2013

Summer favorites

I fell off the bandwagon of these favorites posts over the summer, so I'm just going to do one post for the whole summer, which was a little blurred together anyway because of spending so much time on the one project of my dissertation. Which is now over, so I have time to blog again :)

Favorite music:

I needed plenty of good study music to keep me going through the end of my dissertation, and I really fell in love with a few artists. I knew of Kimbra from her collaboration with Gotye on 'Somebody That I Used to Know,' but I recently discovered her independent album, which is fantastic. Unfortunately, she only has one album out as of now.

I also rediscovered Emily Wells, who's a one-woman music magician, playing and mixing all the instruments and vocals herself. I saw her live at my college a couple of years ago and never got around to listening to her albums. The lyrics to her songs are almost onomatopoetic at times, which is interesting and very pleasing to listen to.

Favorite food:

Milkshakes. The ultimate summer treat. The best, most indulgent reward after finishing a big project or putting a grueling day of writing. I actually only discovered the joys of milkshakes a few years ago, so I'm making up for lost time! There were a couple of great places in England that put any kind of cookie or candybar into a milkshake form, a magical and delicious transformation. But I also experimented with making them at home with fresh fruit. Even better!

Favorite book:

This was a summer devoted to the oeuvre of David Mitchell. I love and worship all his writing, but my favorites are probably number9dream and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. They're also some of my favorite books of all time. Seriously, do not get me started on David Mitchell unless you want to be suddenly overwhelmed by a towering wave of admiration and specialized knowledge.

Favorite movie:

Definitely From up on Poppy Hill, the newest movie from Studio Ghibli. I am, in general, an adorer of Ghibli productions. I have many more to watch, much to my shame, but also secret delight because how delicious is it to know there are movies out there that you haven't seen yet but know you'll love? From up on Poppy Hill was wonderful. I loved the main character and her subtle evolution from selfless responsibility to falling in love and letting go both of her day-to-day tasks and her clinging to the past. The visuals, of course, were stunning, especially the interior of the old clubhouse that's at the center of the story. The best part: I got to see it in original Japanese with subtitles, which I love.

Favorite fashion:

To be honest, this was not a summer for being fashionable. I spent most of it sitting in bed or at my desk in my pyjamas, which is my go-to writing outfit. When you have to sit all day, all you care about is being comfy. I stopped wearing jewelry, just threw on jeans and a t-shirt whenever I went out to dinner with my friends, and generally lived in the same clothes for three months. What's strange is, I kind of loved it. Now I've been reunited with my full closet, I'm very excited to get back into creative fashion combinations, but I'm also a lot more stressed about clothes. As someone who has trouble with decisions and wants to get her clothes just right every time, I found the simplicity of a small closet incredibly freeing. So right now I'm trying to figure out a balance between satisfying my love of clothes and self-expression-through-clothes and my need not to obsess over clothes for an hour every morning.

Favorite experience:

The best thing about this summer is that, when I finally turned in my dissertation and left England, I was satisfied. I'm proud both of the work I put in and the final product I turned in. It may not earn a high mark, but I know that this project took me way beyond my previous academic work, in terms of thinking and writing. So I walked away from this year feeling good about it and satisfied as I move on to whatever my next projects will be.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

This is the first book I picked up after finishing my master's and moving back to California (hence the long absence from this blog!). I've been wanting to read this for a while, especially since I saw Chabon talk about his new book last fall. He was very cool and funny in person, so I've been looking forward to picking up one of his books. And I wasn't disappointed. In fact, this book is pretty amazing (as the title suggests), as a historical novel, a story about storytelling, and an American epic, three genres that interest me a lot.

The book is about two young Jewish cousins (one American, one Czech) who are part of the invention and huge surge of superhero comic books in New York during WWII. That most of the creators of those comics were Jewish is historically accurate, and although the characters and their comic were invented by Chabon, he peppers the novel with footnotes and at times uses present-tense, retrospective narration to suggest that everything he describes actually happened. This effect is so well-done that I had to go online to make sure none of it was real! In the tradition of the best historical novels, Chabon weaves a compelling, personal, fictional story out of an equally compelling historical reality, drawing links between the comic books and the war as well as the society of WWII New York.

In addition to being a brilliant historical novel, this is also a wonderful tribute to the comic book form. Chabon is uncannily good at describing the visual effect of a comic book illustration. The passages describing panels of the books his characters are creating are just stunning. (Actually, in general, Chabon's prose is stunning, with long, long sentences dragging the reader along so that you're torn between stopping to appreciate the beautiful convolutions of his writing and racing ahead to find out the next reveal in the plot.)

Even as someone who doesn't read comics, though, I found the book's portrayal of difficult lives made meaningful by storytelling really compelling. The main characters are all artists and storytellers, and their relationship to their creativity changes over the course of the novel and over the course of the war in sometimes tragic, sometimes really uplifting ways. In college, I studied some post-war German poetry and read about the kind of creative numbness that followed the war. This book portrays the complexity of various characters' reactions to the traumas of the war, whether is inspires or destroys their creative impulses.

In doing so, it bridges the reactions of Europe and America. By having one of the characters arrive in New York from Prague at the beginning of the war, Chabon ensures that the threat of the war and especially the Holocaust are never far from our minds. He portrays the first superheros as a product of American and European Jewish communities and cultures meeting, and offers a more nuanced vision of some of America's strongest myths.

The book is a bit of an epic myth itself - although it only covers about ten or fifteen years, they are some of the most traumatic and important years of 20th century history, so it feels much longer. I started to get a bit nervous about the ending as the characters aged, separated, and reunited, because I tend not to like epilogue-type endings that close off the story a few years down the line. But Chabon succeeded in rounding off his story without closing it down. In the end, he leaves things open and fairly hopeful, but not unrealistically so...But no spoilers! You must go read it yourself, and I recommend you do. Personally, I'm looking forward to discovering more of Chabon's work.